Plant Guide > Grasses > Sweet Vernal Grass

Sweet Vernal Grass


Anthoxanthum odoratum L.

The student is fortunate who begins the analysis of grasses with the Sweet Vernal, as did Darwin, who wrote of it: "I have just made out my first grass, hurrah! hurrah! I must confess that fortune favours the bold, for, as good luck would have it, it was the easy Anthoxanthum odoratum; nevertheless it is a great discovery; I never expected to make out a grass in my life, so hurrah! It has done my stomach surprising good."

Sweet Vernal is the first grass to attract one in early spring as in April it pushes up its compact, spike-like panicles to expand them soon with the open blossoms, whose large, violet anthers, as in many wind-fertilized plants, furnish the colour that is lacking in the tiny flower.

Although many of our common grasses possess a faint and agreeable odour in blossoming time, as well as in the hayfield, Sweet Vernal-grass and Vanilla Grass are our only strongly fragrant species, and after a May shower the sweetness of country air is due, not to the more noticeable blossoms of spring, but to the countless spikes of Sweet Vernal, so abundant by waysides and in upland meadows.

The resinous principle, coumarin, to which the fragrance is due, is similar in odour to benzoin, and is found in a number of other plants; one of these, the Blue Melilot, is, in Switzerland, mixed with cheese to which the plant imparts its peculiar odour, and it has been said that in Italy water distilled from Sweet Vernal-grass has been used as a perfume. The slender, satiny stems of this grass are of beautiful texture and, with those of June Grass, have been used in the weaving of imitation Leghorn hats, as well as in basketry.

Sweet Vernal-grass. Anthoxanthum odoratum L.

Perennial. Naturalized from Europe.

Stem 1-2 ft. tall, slender, erect. Ligule 1"-2" long. Leaves 1'-6' long, 1" 3" wide, flat, smooth or sparingly downy.

Spike-like Panicle 1'-4' long, green or brownish. Spikelets 1-flowered, narrow, 3"-4" long. Scales 5; outer scales very unequal, often downy; 3d and 4th scales hairy and bearing dorsal awns; awn of 4th scale bent and twisted, more than twice the length of the scale. Stamens 2, anthers violet. Stigmas white. Plant very fragrant in drying.

Waysides, meadows, and pastures. April to July.

Throughout nearly the whole of North America.